I had a reasonable run and I guess it had to happen eventually but sadly I think 2018 marks the point that I completely lost touch with what is popular in gaming. Like that guy at a festival sat on a foldaway camping chair reading the Guardian supplement and complaining about Jason-Zed headlining, I seem to have developed a complete disconnect between what I enjoy and what is ‘now’. At around September this year I realised that my favourite games so far were a game that I’ve seen literally one other person talk about online and another that proved such an unpopular concept that it totally crashed at retail and took absolutely everyone in the development team with it. Never let it be said that I don’t have my finger on the pulse. WAZZUPPPPP?!?!? .
I guess the writing was on the wall when I didn’t think Breath of the Wild was all that; an opinion that’s about as popular as a contrarian at a conformist convention. To my credit, I did give Fortnite a go and was delighted to discover that there’s a perfectly entertaining videogame attached to what I had previously assumed was simply a digital repository of contemporary dance moves. But I was only able to enjoy it by bypassing the base building entirely; a mechanic that I decided was too complicated for me to learn after five minutes of building wooden staircases to nowhere in an attempt to find the ducking button (call of the search, I’ve found it everyone; this is the context under which predictive text actually gets that word ducking right). Realising that your panicked cycling through the menus is terrifyingly reminiscent of when your mum attempted to put the clock forward on the VCR that one time is not a pleasant juxtaposition I can tell you.
As the end of the year rolled round I was more excited by the release of Tetris Effect (the splicing of a thirty year old tidy-em-up and the kind of art you’d find at a legal highs stand) than I was about the enormously popular output of Daniel Radcliffe’s rootin’ tootin’ sweatshop. Yes, you will not find Red Dead Redemption 2 here; not least because I’ve completely lost interest with the sub-genre of games that require you to walk agonisingly slowly behind another character whilst they explain what you need to do in excruciating detail; but because I found the original so tedious I frankly couldn’t give a monkeys. Sir, I could barely muster up a marmoset.
But what you will find if you continue to scroll down this page and use your retinas to interpret the symbols on the display as concepts and ideas, is a record of a year that although couldn’t possibly hope to compare with last year’s insanely good line up, still managed to prove that videogames are really pretty alright on the whole.
I strongly suggest that you do them.
10. Spider-Man (PS4)
Way back when at the very dawn of time, myself and a couple of mates went to a place called Blockbusters (think of it as a kind of Netflix that you can be in) and rented a game called Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2 (think of it as a kind of PlayStation 4 but halved). It was a bloody great way to spend a weekend; passing the pad, swinging round the city and doing the actually quite restrictive number of things that Spider-Man can do that a spider does. And it has been one of the great mysteries of the gaming industry that such a bankable concept hasn’t been bettered *dramatic pause* UNTIL NOW.
Finally, someone else has managed to capture that feeling of off-the-cuff improvisation and being ever-so-slightly clumsy and shit that makes Spider-Man such a joy to watch falling about. And let’s be completely clear here: he’s brilliant to control in this. Narrowly scraping across the street, front-flipping off windowsills and spinning endlessly through the air just like you never see spiders do, Mr Parker is so much fun to get from A to B that fairly often all the other bit, the stopping crimes and actually doing stuff, can feel a little unwelcome.
Spider-Man (or ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ as The Man is desperate for us to call it but we obviously never do) occasionally feels like the most videogamey game ever made. Think of something games generally do, and there’s a chance you’ll find it here; skill trees, collectables, infuriatingly shit stealth sections, buildings you have to climb up in order to have a look around and put stuff on your map despite the fact this is New York and I think Ol’ Pete might be a little familiar with this city.
If this sounds a little critical it’s because it is and that’s what I intended (fuck me, I’m such a fucking wordsmith), but it’s only disappointing to see such little imagination and experimentation in the structure and missions because the core game is so stupidly fun to play. It took me absolutely bloody ages to get to the end of this because each time I started it up I just spent the first half hour dicking about. And in the end, isn’t the wondrous joy of play rather than the regimented satisfaction of progress what games are really about? Makes you think, man. Makes you think.
9. OnRush (PS4)
Jesus, where to start with this one. Onrush is a game that’s so magnificently weird, so belligerently unique, so plain fucking odd, that it brought down its studio and killed the genre it created within about a month of its release. Now that’s some tantrum. Less ‘I’m going home and taking my ball with me’ and more ‘I’m going home and I’ve murdered all the footballers and I’ve abolished the sphere’.
Despite looking like every single one of those 360 racing games with a one word, xxxtreme, tough guy name like ‘TORQUE’ or ‘SHRED’ or ‘JACULATE’, it actually played like none of them. Y’see, despite being full of cars and tracks and jostling for position, this isn’t a racing game. It doesn’t even have a finish line. In fact, more often than not, being in the lead puts you at a disadvantage. I know, I’m blowing your mind here like Elon blazing it up on a podcast (a topical reference for you there).
It’s a team deathmatch arcade car smasher; a game that doesn’t welcome classification or comparison. You can say it’s a bit like Burnout with the reward mechanic on high speed takedowns and near misses. Or a bit like Overwatch with its focus on teamwork and common goals. But really, it’s like nothing, and this perhaps goes some way to explain why it sold absolutely bum all. As with everything, we stupid humans all cry out ‘WE DEMAND ORIGINALITY’ but when it arrives we wrinkle our nose up and say ‘ewww, not that kind of originality’ like my kids refusing to eat anything outside of the approved five fucking meals that we have to eat over and over a-fucking-gain Jesus Christ when will they grow up and piss off so we can enjoy a risotto.
A crying shame then, as Onrush could have been the start of something proper spectacular. As it is, it will have to hang around as the player numbers fizzle out like a spoiler in a Marvel film, leaving those of us that did give it a go furiously shaking our fists at all the idiots that robbed us of this jaw-clenching, breath-stealing, thrill-a-second experiment.
8. WipEout Omega Collection (PSVR)
Can I nominate a free of charge update to a game released in 2017? Course I can. It’s my post, my game, my rules I can do whatever I like. I can nominate a slice of ham if I want to. The power, good Lord, THE POWER.
So here we are then: my eighth best game of 2018 is my fifth best game of 2017 except this time you can put your head in it. This is perhaps surprisingly low considering high-speed, eye-bleeding, ear-fucking space racing is an extremely Jolly genre, but then I do find it somewhat difficult to play this for too long without feeling completely revolting.
WipeEout in VR is like going out for a quick drink in the afternoon, shall we stay out or go home, let’s stay for one or two, shall we have a shot, a cocktail, two beers, another cocktail, a shot of some purple shit, some wine, a beer, closing one eye so that you can focus on your phone and post something embarrassing on Twitter, a beer, a shot, a beer, a shot, one last drink, a beer, are we the only ones dancing, a shot, a beer, cheesy chips in pitta on the walk back, a beer, a record breaking piss and then falling asleep and waking up with something from Pornhub still playing on the telly. In the moment its great fun, a super idea, but sweet Jesus you’re in for an existential crisis afterwards.
From the moment that the title screen attempts to burn the colour out of your irises by being EXTREMELY INTENSE BRIGHT FUCKING WHITE (a really rather stupid idea to be honest: when it loads up you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve died and gone to purgatory) it’s abundantly clear that this is going to put your senses through the wringer and the first couple of races are likely to feel like someone has filled your head full of sweets and set a bunch of kids on you with a baseball bat. Every dip, every turn, every boost, every explosion battering your brain. Some Prodigy song that you can’t be sure if it’s five, ten or twenty years old vibrating through your skull. You haven’t blinked for three minutes, your hands are so firmly clasped around the controller they’re going to need to be buttered off and you feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach by a boxing glove on a spring that burst out of a hammer from a Loony Tunes cartoon.
SOUNDS FUN, RIGHT?! But if you’re the kind of masochist for whom this does sound like a good time, the kind of person who only knows that they’ve enjoyed themselves because they can’t remember anything, someone who’s always the last one to go to bed, someone who looks at Superhans like Jeremy does rather than someone who looks at Superhans like Mark does, this is a proper, amazing update. A ridiculous freebie. Sitting in the cockpit at the start of the race is just obscenely cool. Gazing up at the Blade Runner architecture as you race past is wish fulfilment at its finest. Just, for crying out loud, remember to put your travel sickness bands on and have a bowl handy. If you do, there’s a good chance that this will be the greatest stomach upset you’ve ever had.
7. WarioWare Gold (3DS)
Taken as a series, WarioWare highlights how infuriating it can be that Nintendo are so reluctant to do straight sequels. Ever since the totally banging original, I’ve been desperate for them to just do it again; to give me another 200 mental, quick-fire surprises; but they’ve always faffed about with it, diluting the purity.
Gold tries to get round this by simply being all the WarioWare all at once. And boy, there is a lot of WarioWare here. Cats living in afros, gold plated shits, a game that grades you on how consistent your signature is; it can feel a bit bewildering, having this level of insanity shoved into your face from every direction. It’s like getting into the ball pit of soft play area full of overstimulated children on a wet Saturday afternoon; potentially completely fucking awful but if you commit to it and just throw yourself in, you’ll probably have a brilliant time. It’s totally relentless, a bright blue drink of a game, perhaps best exemplified by the mode that doesn’t give you a break between games and flips instantly from the top screen to the bottom and back again, like a caffeinated dog with a ball constantly bounding about desperate for your attention.
But that’s just one challenge. How about the one that asks you to play microgames whilst tilting the machine to control how fast they are? Or the one where you have to keep an eye out for the bizarrely petrifying Mum, lest she blasts you with her laser eyes for being up past your bedtime? Or Wario Interrupts, where the big guy just decides to be a hilariously distracting shit, farting over the games and cementing his position as one of the World’s most brilliant arseholes?
Gold also goes some way to confirming just how wonderful the ragtag characters in this offshoot Nintendo universe really are, by wrapping the entire thing in a totally bananas cartoon storyline that definitely, definitely should be made into an actual show.
I got the uneasy feeling playing that this might be it for WarioWare. The games approach; less everything including the kitchen sink and more an endless, unfathomable universe of wall-to-wall kitchen sinks – its kitchen sinks all the way down; can feel like a full stop. This is it. You’ve had enough Irn Bru for now young man; let’s get you down off the ceiling. If this is the case, it really has ended on a high. A sugar-packed, e-numbered and e-fuelled high. Easily the best it’s been since the original. WarioWhere? WarioHere.
6. Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)
Despite sounding like an idea that Miyamoto desperately threw at Tony Hayers in an attempt to secure a second series, Mario Tennis is one of the more successful spin offs for everyone’s favourite heating engineer and this version on the Switch is something else.
Although I’m not completely sure that you can credit Nintendo with the drama that naturally occurs within tennis, the fact remains that the sport’s completely mental but inspired scoring system, its potential for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and the mind game possibilities of Derren Browning the fuck out of your opponent make for an incredibly compelling one-on-one online videogame.
Games swing from one side of the net to the other like a gigantic pendulous set of bollocks; you’ll find yourself millimetres from victory only to be plonked back a marathon away seconds later. And of course, the addition of the cheerful and charming Mario crew and the dash of madness they bring, with moonwalking Waluigi’s, windmilling chain chomps and…er….Spike (honestly, who at Nintendo is pushing this bizarre agenda to get fucking Spike involved?) means that there’s a delightful soupcon of something different drizzled over the court.
The racket braking mechanic, where you can lose a match with a single misplaced shot, is either the kind of lunacy that you’ll warmly embrace like a very cuddly bomb or the kind of thing that will make you smash up your Switch like a professional tennis player being passionate, apparently. I loved it personally, but then I’m the kind of weirdo that prefers the tension and journey of just about losing a game against a similar level opponent over the empty victory of steamrolling over a newcomer, so I’m all for these playing field levellers.
Aces’ adventure mode is a bit shite unfortunately and it did suffer from some character balancing issues at release, but what you’ve now got here is an online mode that’s just a tier below Splatoon and Mario Kart and about level with Arms for my money. Don’t get COURT out, this is a SMASH. It’s ACE. You’ll LOVE it. TENNIS.
5. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (PSVR)
A term that’s used with alarming regularity in certain gaming circles (mostly those of us that grew up reading 90s game magazines) is ‘grinning like a loon’. I have never encountered anyone use this phrase to describe anything other than a videogame, mostly because the image of mindless, vacant pleasure doesn’t really fit with any other pursuit (‘my lasagne was so delicious I was grinning like a loon’, ‘I’ll never forget when the children were born, I was grinning like a loon’, ‘It looks like nan is going to pull through, I’m grinning like a loon’). What with me being fairly miserable, I very rarely join in, preferring instead to be ‘sneering like a prick’. But Astro Bot is a game that is so effortlessly charming that I simply couldn’t help but join in with the loon grinning.
A virtual reality, third person platformer might sound like the perfect recipe for sick pie, but somehow the only hint of nausea this provides is a by-product of how sickeningly cute everything is. The bots themselves (that you both control and are tasked to rescue) are completely delightful; gleefully hopping about and flossing to victory with such charisma that you have to wonder if Sony have *finally* found themselves a mascot that I could give two fucks about.
But it doesn’t stop there; Astro Bot’s spark of genius is that you actually inhabit this world too. Catch yourself in one of the video feeds that litter the stages and you’ll notice that you’re a larger caped robot following the one you control. You’ll have to crane your neck round corners, peer down precipices and watch helplessly as a bird shits on your visor. It’s incredibly involving to the point that I actually found myself holding my breath when caught by a wave in one of the truly magnificent underwater stages.
To spoil too many of the situations in which this duality of bot made me smile would be to rob you of one the most imaginative and surprising platformers produced outside of that company that normally makes imaginative and surprising platformers but whose name currently escapes me (nearly there, only a few more sentences before I become the first person to hype about Astro Bot without using the N word).
With a relentless sense of forward motion, a series of brilliant challenges, some outstanding bosses and the third best soundtrack of the year (it’s truly amazing, but released in a year with a couple more utter stonkers that may or may not be coming up) you have a game that goes some way to justifying the existence of VR gaming. This simply could not be done without it. Sell your granny to play it!!! (And other 90s videogame journalism clichés – Ed)
4. Into The Breach (Switch)
‘It’s like chess!’ screams anyone who has ever tried to describe a clever strategy game in order to sound like they have half a clue of the complexity on offer. Well guess what? Into The Breach is like chess! Huge, hunking robot chess with fuck off lasers and the cast of Starship Troopers.
Controlling a team of time-travelling mechs on a tiny checkerboard diorama in order to crush the insect threat that emerges from the ground, Breach is one of those games that never leave you in any doubt that the fuck ups are your fault. It blows my mind to try and imagine the amount of work that went into ensuring that every little intricate part of this magnificent little bastard was balanced correctly, but let’s just say that twice I thought I had stumbled on a perfect formula for victory only to have my arse handed to me ten minutes down the line.
This game can be brutally difficult; an hour of carefully executed plans born from the mind of Napoleon, blown apart by ten seconds of bullshit. But somehow it just never feels frustrating or unfair. Victory is always achievable and the manner in which each run across the islands culminates in a proper balls-to-the-wall last stand where you’ll be sacrificing teammates left and centre, makes what can appear to be a very grey game for people who enjoy sheds, breathtakingly exciting.
It does seem somewhat unfortunate that Into The Breach seems to be purposefully attempting to be as huffy and po-faced as possible (I think the game could best be described as the interactive entertainment form of Jeremy Paxman), as it genuinely holds it back. I think a little spark of personality could have made it an all-timer. It’s all substance, with very little style.
But never mind; this is an astoundingly fun bit of headache inducing homework. It’s like doing a PhD on the science of water slides or painstakingly documenting your favourite pornography scenes in a spreadsheet; thankless, gruelling, (some would say) pointless work that manages to be brilliant fun. From the initial thud as your big, metal dudes land (one of my absolute favourite uses of rumble this generation, vibration fans) to your inevitable, heart-breaking failure this is an exceptionally well-designed piece of work. Something that I admire, enjoy and can never hope to completely understand. It’s like chess!
3. Just Beats & Shapes (Switch)
There’s this bit really early in Just Beats & Shapes where it proudly and relentless reels off the entire track list. Although the artists and songs contained therein are unlikely to get booker for the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party leaping for the phone anytime soon, this short sequence feels like the developer putting their arm round your shoulder and whispering gently but confidentially in your ear ‘that first ten minutes was pretty fucking special wasn’t it? Just wait until you get a load of this lot’.
Ostensibly a shoot ’em up without any shooting, you control a small blue square tasked with avoiding the colour pink. But good God you’ll have difficulty, because the pink is completely fucking amazing. It pulses, explodes and dances along to the music; smoothly transforming from a pounding equaliser to a spinning box of buzz saws before evolving into a wide-eyed, pill-munching, acid rave smiley trying to dab you to death.
This is a gloriously inventive game, clearly heavily influenced by the work of synaesthesia genius Tetsuya Mizuguchi, but never has anyone got this close to his see-the-sound style before. Fantastically, despite the obvious comparison, this manages to dance to its own tune by also being unexpectedly hilarious. There’s proper wit here in both the level and sound design; a real flash of character that, dare I say it, can sometimes feel missing in a Mizuguchi game.
Before I go back to the breathless praise, it’s probably worth pointing out that the music is pretty niche. Unless like me, you’re a Dad-dance chemical casualty that enjoys his music to sounds like Aphex Twin throwing a Spectrum down the stairs there’s a real chance that you won’t connect with what is on offer here. You’d be insanely wrong of course; the Just Beats & Shapes track list also happens to be my most listened to album of the year. Packed with the absolute best beeps and beats, with just the right level of cheesy wankery and several charming nostalgic nods, it peaks with the utterly magnificent ‘Close To Me’, four minutes of the dirtiest, fuckyiest chiptunes you’re ever likely to hear.
But to single one track for praise seems unfair, likewise to praise the music without praising the mad shit on the screen that goes with it. Just Shapes & Beats is a game that celebrates the oldest of old school videogame music with all the flair of a Michel Gondry music video, and it got me over my rational hatred of ampersands. By some margin, the most overlooked game of the past few years. Get the fuck on it.
2. Super Smash Bros: Ultimate (Switch)
My surname is Scott and absolute tiresome dickhead that I am I like to refer to the film director Ridley Scott as ‘Uncle Ridders’. This is despite the fact that of the three people I live with, two are under ten and couldn’t give a floss who he is, and the other enters a zen-like state to filter out my bullshit the instant she walks through the door. It’s a joke that no one cares about other than myself. A mastabatory reference. Smash on Switch is utterly rammed with these.
Not least of all Ridley himself. Not Uncle Ridders you understand (fingers crossed for the DLC!!!) but the baddie from Metroid that vast swathes of the audience will either never have encountered or completely forgotten about. But Rear Admiral Ridlington of the Space Pirates is as ubiquitous and famous as my old blood relative Ridley Scott compared to some of the other faces you’ll find here. Callbacks that are so obscure that literally nobody is going to recognise them all. Huge great generational divides of characters that mean everything to to those born in the 20th century, nothing to those born after and visa versa. It’s like a YouTuber on Strictly.
Fortunately Smash unites one and all where it really matters. You could have never played a videogame before, pick up a pad and make something spectacular happen on the screen. But to truly understand everything that is going on here will take hundreds and hundreds of hours. There’s over seventy characters in this and after all my time with it I feel comfortable with approximately two. It would seem impossibly daunting if it wasn’t also outrageously fun. ‘Ultimate’ is the kind of name Little Chef would give the breakfast that nobody could possibly finish. This is a £25 roadside fry-up of a game except actually delicious.
There’s an infectious enthusiasm in everything the game does that means that even when it doesn’t quite pull something off perfectly (and Smash has often felt unusually ramshackle when compared to the PERFECTLY ORGANISED GOVERNMENT APPROVED SPORTSDAY FUN that Nintendo normally puts out) you can’t help but fall for it. Why not have a shoot ’em in the credits? Why not put it the thematically wonky Bayonetta? Why not allude to a Metal Gear Solid character with a nuke in her uterus? Well, there’s plenty of reasons not to do that last one, but you get the idea.
Ultimate also boasts the mind-meltingly huge Spirits mode. This thing is ridiculously long, like a baguette that Roy Castle has gone to have a look at. It also happens to be one of the most compelling, surprising and enjoyable RPGs I’ve played for years and is totally dominating my playtime as I write this. Aside from Odyssey it’s my favourite single player experience on the Switch which from the traditionally mulitplayer focused genre of beat ’em ups is saying something. It just makes me feel good and constantly reminds me how good all games; not just this one; can be.
Smash isn’t the self-indulgent celebration of Nintendo history it once was. Smash is now a celebration of the entire medium. It’s a party at the end of the world. It’s a game in which it seems anything could happen, and frequently does. And, like Mario Kart 8, it’s a game that feels like it’s the absolute pinnacle of the a long, historic series. Just how in the sweet merry Christ will they ever better this? Can’t wait to find out.
1. Tetris Effect (PS4/PSVR)
If I have to lay a criticism at the door of Tetris Effect, it’s that it peaks a little early. This is somewhat understandable, given that the first level is possibly the most beautiful five minutes in the history of videogames. Much like the title screen that sees the tetrimimos hovering over the horizon of Earth, that’s an astronomically high bar.
Starting in the very depths of the deepest of oceans, your actions sending sonic ripples of light through the darkness, you awaken the magical creatures that sleep just beyond the realms of reality. A school of fish, or could they be stars, swim in perfect synchronicity , darting amongst the fins of a great, ageless whale made entirely of light, born at the very beginning of the universe from the very corners of creation. It sings. The call in perfect harmony with a song that feels like it was written by another species such is the level of understanding, forgiveness and empathy. Something so impossible, so divine, so bewitching cannot possibly created by a human. But the majesty of the music comes tinged with sadness, with a message laced with a deadly threat “Don’t you forget it”, it warns, “we’re all connected in this life”.
I guess what I’m trying to say, is that the first level is really fucking good. So good, and this goes for the rest of the game if we’re being completely honest, that the playing itself; the spinning, the dropping, the clearing of blocks; takes a back seat. It’s not really what you’re here for. It’s something to do in the background whilst all this mad shit goes on around you. But, in the main Journey mode at least, this disregard for the mechanics of what is arguably the most perfectly designed videogame, seems intentional. The Tetris is there to relax your brain, to distract your consciousness and allow your mind to wander. To allow you to wallow in the sights and sounds. It’s dream-inducing, it’s hallucinogenic, it’s meditation. That’s some set of balls: looking at Tetris and thinking, “y’know what, I think we can make this better”.
Anyone who has played Rez or Lumines will be familiar with the idea of what is going on here; you’re not only playing, you’re performing. Every movement you make synchronises with what you see and what you hear. You can find yourself no longer playing to compete, but to entertain. To entertain a vast, enraptured crowd of one all inside your own head.
And it can literally be in your head too, because this trip can take place entirely in VR. Somehow, Tetris Effect manages to be a game that’s just as enjoyable on a screen at the other end of the living room as it is on a screen strapped to your face. You’ll notice something different on one platform to the other. The total sensory deprivation of being in the headset, of having the game completely around you, can be distracting. Distracting in the best possible way, but distracting none-the-less. Stick it on the telly and you can enjoy it for what it is, you can appreciate it fully. Like quietly contemplating a painting in a gallery after closing time. This is yours. Look at it.
There’s a whole bunch of modes that play about with the basic rules of Tetris and provide some fantastic score attack, leaderboard chasing opportunities – the kind of thing that I’d normally be shouting about from the rooftops. But Journey is so spectacularly good that I’ve just read back through this post and realised how little I’ve dicked about. You can’t with this. It demands respect.
It’s a story about the wonder of human endeavour, about how far we have come and how it could all easily come crashing down around us. It’s a story about the fragility of our planet but also about its power to overcome. It’s a story about faith, about society, about nature, about joy, about peace. “It’s all connected. We’re all connected in this…”.
Tetris Effect is named after the phenomenon of feeling like you’re still playing Tetris long after you’ve finished. When you still mentally spin and clear blocks but without a pad in your hands. Rarely has a title been more apt. This is a game I can’t stop thinking about. A game that will stick with me forever. An all-timer. A stone cold classic. A total masterpiece. Better than Rez? You know what, it just might be.